Textural Ideas from Florida's Nature

 Hiking in the woods of Florida's parks is what inspired me to garden in the first place and whether you're religious or not, the most beautiful scenery in nature sure does look just as planned as any botanical garden.  That's why the most powerful garden designs are massed with textural plantings like a carpet and give your eye a place to rest, because that's the way it works in nature.

Ferns drape the floor of a cypress swamp in Highlands Hammock, thriving in the moist shade.

At Corkscrew Swamp, adjacent to the Everglades, abundant sun and water combine with seasonal burns to encourage this extensive field of coreopsis.

 At Guana River Preserve, a limited variety of clumping grasses like muhly grass glow like golden filaments in the strip between salt marsh and maritime hammock habitats.

 A lush field of grasses blankets the ground beneath cedars in dappled light.

 The coreopsis are even more profuse at the edge of the cypress swamp where they receive afternoon sun.

 Sabal palm's fire blackened trunks pierce into the glowing lush grasses.

 A roseate spoonbill punctuates the calming swath of spartina grass, sifting for breakfast.

Native muhly grass and South African bulbine create a naturalistic composition at the Jacksonville Zoo..

Though many of these scenes are hard to recreate exactly, the last picture illustrates that you can implement texture in the garden with more readily available plants.  If you really want to make your collection of camelias or hibiscus pop out, consider providing a calming groundcover that frames your plants and allows the eye to rest.  Even mundane plants like bordergrass, asiatic jasmine, lily of the nile and purple fountain grass can be stunning in numbers, especially when combined with contrasting architectural plants like cannas, agaves, gingers or ti plants!

Rainforest, Indoors!





Thank you Stephania from the Gardenweb bromeliad forum for these amazing photos of her "Tropicarium"!  There is no limit to what you can do with a little inspiration, determination, and in this case, talent!  Most zoos don't have habitats as artfully created as this one, so these are some very lucky treefrogs.  
Note the careful selection of durable low growing plants used here: mondo grass, cryptanthus bromeliads and ferns are all used planted in individual containers for easy upkeep and maintenance, and they thrive on the moisture typical of terrariums.  

Make your own!
Obviously not everyone has the technical skills or funds to recreate this project to the tee, but here are some easier variations that still bring a miniature rainforest indoors.  I made some illustrations to help.

Aquarium Redux -  Repurpose or buy a freestanding aquarium and place in a well lit area where it can be admired.  Plug some small pots where the plants will go and fill the surrounding area with gravel and rocks.  Place large houseplants like ficus to either side and let vines trail over and around the terrarium. 
Tabletop Garden -  Find a large and flat tupperware container (like an under-the-bed type) and make a simple wooden frame to surround it.  Fill the bottom with rocks or gravel for drainage and place your plants where appropriate, then filling in the remaining area with potting soil and covering with a mulch of gravel or orchid bark.  You can either place this on top of a sturdy table, or build a table around it!  A simplistic zen look with dwarf mondograss suits this plan nicely.

Living Wall -  You don't need one of those expensive kits for this look!  Find a stud in your wall and install some hanging basket hangers, (available at your local hardware store) directly over each other so that when excess water drips down the other baskets catch it.  Place a bucket underneath while watering if you're still worried about getting the floor wet.  Plant the baskets with a variety of plants, making sure to use some trailing vines like philodendrons to really make it lush and natural.  If you want a low maintenance answer, try bromeliads, which catch the water in cups so you don't make a mess and can water less often.

I hope that this gives everyone some ideas, especially those who can't grow tropicals outdoors.  Rest assured that I will have more ideas later!

The Epiphyte Balcony!

Although I've mostly talked about the garden at my mom's place, my balcony is the garden I get to see every day as an extension of my home.  I can't grow veggies and herbs since its north facing, and succulents usually end up a bit leggy, but its perfect for my epiphyte collection since rainforest plants are accustomed to deep shade anyways!  Since I am perched on the second floor of an apartment building, I figured an epiphytic theme was just perfect.  I hope to someday make wall art using epiphytes much like designers use succulents in living walls.  Here are some shots.

 Up top you can see a coupe of my rhipsalis, or mistletoe cacti draping down luxuriantly over a fiddle leaf fig, my ti plants, some palms, seedlings and a collection of bromeliads.  Hanging baskets give an extra dimension to the rainforest garden, bringing to mind branches festooned with exuberant growth! 

 This is my favorite "container", a rainforest in a centerpiece.  Its a hollowed out piece of tree fern trunk filled with some bark and planted with vriesea bromeliads, rhipsalis, easter cactus, an encyclia orchid and some white tillandsias.  Its very easy to care for, and I've gone weeks without watering it before.  I'm honestly not sure what species of bromeliads are included in it, but the vriesea responds to the epiphytic situation by having nicely colored leaves.  In spring or summer they'll bloom again, possibly alongside the fragrant encyclia that its growing with.
 Here's a hanging bromeliad ball of a nice white tillandsia.  I used to mist it dutifully every day, but it seems fine without the extra attention.

 This is the mistletoe cactus that I did a profile of earlier, and its putting out a ton of new shoots!  I think its time to take some cuttings before it gets too heavy!

This is my seed starting area, using an awesome bakers rack that resembles a fire escape..  To the left are some rhipsalis and dragonfruit seedlings I started from fruits, to the right of that is a surinam cherry seedling, also started from a fruit.  To the right of those is a collection of natives started from collected seeds including wild coffee, magnolia and coontie.  I hope to someday plant this same container in a garden, many repottings later of course.  In the back and to the right are various succulents getting started, and the empty containers are failed seedlings, unable to survive the fungus gnats.  Does anyone know how to get rid of those darn bugs?

Three of my vrieseas are starting to bloom!  I got a bunch of these for a buck each last year after Christmas, so its nice to see it pay off.

 A lineup of Oncidiums and bromeliads.  The oncidiums have proven to be just as easy as bromeliads to care for, which is to say that they are super-easy to care for.

A collection of bromeliads, ferns and a creeping fig..  The ferns will eventually be planted in the garden, and the creeping fig will be used to create a potted installation.  I want to use fishing line and wire to train it into a hooded vase that surrounds one of my white tillandsias, as if enveloping it.  Creeping fig is made into topiary, so why not abstract installation art?

I hope you enjoyed the tour!  Remember that you can create a sanctuary no matter where you live by bringing nature into your living space.

What to buy?

Here are my finds from the last garden festival!

Heres my big light at the end of this cold and wintry tunnel.  Just in time for spring, The Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville will be holding their annual garden festival March 20th and 21st.  There will be lots of vendors, selling crafts, food, and anything garden related, but the highlight for me is the huge selection of hard-to-find plants such as bromeliads, succulents and gingers.  Every time I go to a huge plant sale like this, I always end up buying nothing but bromeliads, but this year I'm going to take a more practical approach and look for specific areas of my garden.  Will you guys help me think of some plants to look for?

I'm looking for plants that can handle the swampy conditions of the backyard, such as gingers, alocasias and so forth.  What I need most of all is a great low growing plant that handles periodic flooding. Liriope Spicata is working out well so far, but I'd like to find something more interesting.  Any ideas?  I also want to replace my african iris plants, which tolerate the flooding okay, but seem to dwindle in the shade.  Maybe  papyrus?

Heres a photo of the site.

In the rainy season we get water all the way up to the island bed, and the grass looks awful there for most of the year.  If we didn't have a dog I would just let moss grow, but Panda kicks it up before it has a chance to establish.  I have agapanthus in a raised bed to the left and behind the elephant ears, but it has to be in the raised bed because the floods have killed the others.  To the right is the african iris, which I'm looking to replace.  Any ideas?  Thank you all for your help thus far!

New Agave!

The bright side of death in the garden is that you now have a new patch of soil to play with, and you get to mark the inappropriate choices off your list so you won't have to deal with the headache again.  I'm always sure to pick plants that will at least come back in the event of a cold snap, such as this great agave I found on the cheap!  I found it at target for $5.97 and couldn't resist.  It will go perfectly in my succulent garden to be, underneath the cordyline "red sensation" and giant yucca!  I have some other cacti started from seed to put there when they get bigger, as well as a starfish cactus.  Does anyone have any other suggestions?  Also, does anyone know what kind it is?  It was just labeled as a "succulent".  Classic big box retailer irritation.

A Thai Style Dinner!

Though this is a gardening blog, this meal has everything to do with tropical gardening.  It utilizes Coconut milk, peppers, jasmine rice, starfruit, lemongrass, gingers, lime, mushrooms, and a wealth of exotic Southeast Asian spices.  This is to serve as inspiration and not a recipe, but I will include a base for a curry paste that you can add any variety of spices and vegetables to.  This is a super easy dish that you can customize however you want, but first here's a little history.

Since Southeast Asia has so much coastline and rivers stretched between, seafood figures greatly in their cuisine and incorporates influences from Pakistan to China.  Southeast Asian food combines a rich variety of spices with influences from all over the world, thanks to its location jutting out between the Indian and Pacific oceans, and the fabled Mollucan, or spice islands.  Moslem merchants have been utilizing these spices in their dishes long before the West did, and they were also the middlemen who profited greatly from their troubles.  The spices on these islands were so valuable that when the West tired of paying premiums for spices such as black pepper (related to peperomium), they ignited the European age of exploration and the conquest that soon followed.  Eventually Southeast Asian food began to incorporate ingredients of not only Spanish, French and Italian background (Nobody cared to much for British food down there... too bland for their affinity to heat.), but plants cultivated within their empires from all over the world.  So that is why Southeast Asia is a veritable melting pot for the world's best culinary masterpieces.

1.  First, simmer a can of coconut milk, adding 2 tbs of curry paste and chopped vegetables and herbs to taste. 
- You can use any combination of your favorite veggies (peppers are nice), but here are some appropriate choices: peppers, mushrooms, shallots, garlic cloves, potato and eggplant. I used portobello mushrooms, which soaked up the flavor and were succulent and juicy.
- Add spices, seasoned to taste:  Lemongrass, ginger, curry powder, cardamon, turmeric, cayenne pepper, basil and galangal.  Many of these you can grow yourself.  I have also used slices of a habanero pepper before, making the dish VERY spicy, but delicious.  I recommend one little sliver to heaten up the broth so it doesn't overpower everything else.
-  Add your starch, to thicken the broth:  I used arrowroot, which is related to the Prayer Plant.  You can also use taro, or even potatoes or flour if you're playing it safe.

2.  Next, Start your rice.
-  Follow the instructions on the package.  I prefer any glutinous rice, shortgrain, and especially jasmine rice.

3.  Sautee your meat, seafood etc.
I used scallops, but you can use anything you want, including vegetables.  Its just nice to have something with a different flavor and texture to complement the curry.  I would suggest using some salt, garlic and lime to season it.

4.  Serve, garnishing with fruit
This makes a great presentation and adds a sweet and tangy balance to the dish.  Although I used starfruit, you can also use mangos, pineapple, lime or even peach slices.  You can even use a ti leaf, banana leaf, lemongrass stalks or flowers as a garnish if you choose, and I promise it will look amazing.

I will probably include a specific recipe later, as soon as I actually get the self discipline to measure all the stuff I throw in there!


Minimalist Foliage

Ensete Ventricosum

Victoria Amazonica

Costus Speciosus "Foster Variegated"

Dyckia "Cherry Coke"

Bambusa Vulgaris "Vittata"

Musa "Double Mahoi"

Thrilled at the Devastation

Delusional tropical gardening isn't always pretty.  I made my rounds about the garden the other day, pulling on the the dead spears of Cataract palms, arecas and pygmy date palms and starting to get a little irritated with marginally hardy palms.  I know that growing things that belong outside my zone is the exciting part after all, but while other plants return from the roots, stems or trunks, those monocarpic palms have a more black/white approach to handling cold.  To the left you can see the worst looking part of the garden, but will be just fine since everything in the frame is a root hardy perennial. 

Truth be told, I'm ecstatic about all the cold damage!  Between the last two winters I have a lot less to worry about when waiting for the freezes, because now I know which plants to keep and which ones to not worry about.  This knowledge is huge as far as I'm concerned, since I seem to be the only gardener in the area that faithfully records this info and utilizes it.  Everyone else around here (in addition to committing crape murder) finds heliconias and ground orchids at Home Depot and just assumes they'll do well without any protection!  I'm here to tell you that just because you can grow things outside the proper zones doesn't mean you should without careful planning.
To the left is a Bismarck palm, which is not hardy in zone 9a.  It can be though, as long as you either protect it or site it carefully, as three large specimens are planted on a slope at the FCCJ south campus adjacent to a pond.  A neighbor planted his little sapling in the middle of a bright and sunny yard a couple of years ago and although it survived last winter, it couldn't muster the strength to push out a new leaf until summer.  The middle of a open lawn is normally the perfect place for bizzies, but up here even canary island date palms, washingtonias and queen palms are giving up the ghost. 

Because my parents didn't want me to plant this tree in the middle of our backyard, I had to resort to siting it where every book will tell you not to, in a wet and shady area against the woods.  I halfway expected it to die there but it has only adapted by elongating its leaf stalks to efficiently make use of all available sunlight, much as native sabal palms do in the forest. 

This winter I have made a temporary tent for it during our 2 weks in the 20's:  A thick mulch of pine straw to encircle the base with palmetto fronds driven into the ground around it, making an interesting looking cover. It has paid off too, since its already getting a head start on spring and opening up a new frond in spite of the winter cold! 

I had mentioned before that its important to make your trees the hardiest plants in the garden, since they provide protection for the rest of the plants and look the worst when cold damaged.  The most tender tree I have is a Tabebuia Chrysotricha so with the exception of my prized bromeliads, this was the only plant in the garden I was concerned about.  The leaves got bronzed and fell off at the end of our cold spell, but to my surprise the tips are sporting new flower buds already and the wood is green just below the bark to the smallest branch!  If it can survive the last two winters, it can take anything.

The last night of the cold spell didn't freeze, but we were hit with a heavy frost that severely knocked back everything that took the freezes so well.  Now that the damage has had a chance to truly show itself, I can give you guys a brief rundown on how things are looking.   Of course, sometimes plants get weakened by freezes and don't croak until months later, but here's the gist of it.

My monstera deliciosa has died off where it wasn't well covered, but when I brushed aside the covering of pine mulch I provided, there were firm, green stems!
My gingers have died back, but there's still plenty of healthy growth under the parts that died.  It won't take long for them to fill out again.
Believe it or not, the bottlebrushes were singed at the tips this winter!  I haven't seen that before.
I pulled a lot of spears out of the areca palms and cat palms, and one out of a pygmy date palm.  The areca is definitely alive, but only on the suckers at the base.  By the time it recovers it will have a nice canopy to protect it.
The fishtail palm looks awful, but all of it's spears are firm for the moment. 
Peace lilies took a big hit, but still putting out leaves. 
I left some neoregelia spectabilis hybrids, aechmea distichantha, aechmea gamosepala and some phillipo-coburgii's unprotected and they took a beating but are alive.
Plumeria got mushy at the tips but is still firm elsewhere.
Tree fern's fronds are brown but it should be fine.
Firespike, princess flower, firebush and sea grape most likely burned to the ground.
African Iris, Lily of the Nile and White bird of paradise all got knocked to the ground.  The African Iris doesn't take the cold well where i live but it takes flooding in stride.
Philodendron selloum's outer leaves got melty but it looks great regardless.

Plants that definitely didn't make it: 
Coffee tree was a sure goner, I only had it because it was labeled as wild coffee.
Papaya was unprotected and young, so it bit the dust.  I'll replace it for another $1.50 or start some from seed.
Pond apple seedling... I'll just find another seed from the beach and keep it in a container til it gets bigger.
Philodendron hybrids that were not near the house are probably toast, since I didn't protect them..
Neoregelia "fireball" all did awfully even though they were protected.  I'm not trying this one again unless as a filler for containers.

I hope this info helps!  So far I have yet to find too many readers outside the tropics or way up north, so if you live in zones 8-9a, comment and let me know you're out there!

Tropical Starch Crops

I do a lot of reading on tropical regions and am fascinated that certain plants have such desirable qualities that they have been transported, cultivated and cherished throughout the tropics long before Western influence.  Though we do love our sweet and tangy fruits here in Florida, the most important food crops in the tropics are the ones high in starch, comparable to our potato or cereal crops like wheat and corn.  While the Atkins diet has made everyone a little too conscious of their carb intake, the rest of the world isn't getting fat on burgers and venti mochas like we are.  I hope that someday I can replace grease with good old fashioned carbs the way God intended.  Here is a small variety of the food that keeps millions alive in the tropics, and just might make you healthier!  
If eating food from an exotic developing country doesn't do the trick, you could always just go there and get a tapeworm or malaria.  Here are some of the tropical food crops that are better than tapeworms any day!

Though the pictured variety is ornamental, Colocasia Esculenta is a real workhorse of a root crop!  Available at grocery stores as an oblong, bumpy, brown tuber and at your garden center as simply "Elephant Ear", Taro is valued from West Africa to the Mediterranean, from India to Japan and from Polynesia to the West Indies.  In other words, most of the tropics.  It can be made into a flour, a paste called Poi, can be boiled or fried, and you can even cook the leaves and stalks as a vegetable.  Just be sure taro is fully and properly cooked to remove the toxic calcium oxalate.

Also known as Manioc, Tapioca or Yuca, this is probably the most important staple crop in the tropics.
My fiance shared her memories of working as a cashier at the grocery store where people of diverse backgrounds would pile it with their groceries on the conveyor belt.  Sensing her confusion they would helpfully exclaim "ooka root!" which helped her very little so she rang it up as something cheap every time.  "They seemed really happy with the price, so that's how I kept ringing it up!"  When I told her it was Yuca, I had to tell her "No not Yucca, thats a spiky plant from the desert!" but agreed it was confusing so I just didn't bring it up again.
You can plant cassava in zones 8-11 from roots or cuttings, and they return from the roots in the event of frost.
Cassava shows up almost as often as the word "food" in every book I've read about Africa, and thanks to its resilience in the face of civil war, neglect and drought, there is always cassava to fall back on.  When Africans repeatedly come back home to find their crops obliterated by warfare or stolen, cassava becomes the only crop worth growing.  It keeps people alive, but without vitamins and minerals they are malnourished.  I find it funny that one of the traditional favorites up north is tapioca pudding, which comes from the same plant that feeds and sustains the tropics.
As with many other tropical root crops, it is very important to properly cook cassava to deactivate the toxins.

Almost everyone in central to south Florida grows bananas, and everyone else eats the Cavendish variety from the grocery store, but are you using the whole plant to its fullest advantage?  The various forms of banana can be fried, boiled, dried and made into flour.  The flower at the bottom of the stalk can be cooked as a vegetable, as can the tender part of the stem.  The whole plant can be used to make fabric after treating the fibers with lye or bleach, and the Japanese have been using Musa Basjoo this way for many centuries.  In developing countries, the banana is one of the most important foods in preventing famine.

This is the Latin American equivalent of Taro, and is also sold stateside in garden centers as "Elephant Ear". You may find it in traditional Caribbean or South American dishes.  If you find this at the market be sure to plant it right in the ground or a pot and you'll soon have a huge leafy plant on the cheap! As with Taro, be sure to thoroughly cook Yautia, deactivating the toxic calcium oxalate.

Easy to find at the supermarket, Jicama is the root of a vine in the morning glory family with a taste best described as water chestnut with a hint of apple or nuttiness.  I'm always sure to use this in my salad at Sweet Tomatoes to add a nice and flavorful crunch.  When you plant your grocery market find, just remember that the root is the only edible portion of the plant.

These are not sweet potatoes, but are related to the infamous and invasive "Air Potato" plant.  These tubers are grown in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa as a staple crop comparable to cassava.  You can find them at the supermarket as "name", and can also grow them in the garden as long as you don't let them get out of control.  They range in color from white to orange and even purple!  Be sure to properly cook these for safe eating.

As you can see, most of these root vegetables are poisonous when raw and do need proper cooking, but are indispensable for authentic international cuisine.  Just think of how much money you would save by utilizing these exotic alternatives to boring old potatoes!

Recommended Reading These books provide insight into the lifestyles of the tropic's backwaters, including sustenance.  The last two are chock full of gardening advice.

Banana by Dan Koeppel
A history of Bananas

 Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux
Travels from Cairo to Cape Town
The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux 
Kayaking throughout the Pacific Islands

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Memoirs of a boy soldier

The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget by Andrew Rice
A recent history of Uganda
Surviving Paradise by Peter Rudiak-Gould
An english teacher lives on a small island in micronesia
The Lost City of Z by David Grann
Recounts the travels of an adventurer looking for El Dorado in the Amazon

Don't Throw It, Grow it! by Peterson and Selsam
Shows you how to grow what you find in the produce Aisle
Feb/Mar issue of Florida Gardening Magazine
Has a great article on root crops by John A. Starnes Jr.

Tropical courtyard!

Phase one of my Balinese style garden is almost complete!  I've been putting it off for a while since it took a solid day to complete and a couple car loads of hardscaping, but its finally looking like a balinese courtyard garden after all.  I still need to scrub the older pavers and fill in some more rock mulch, but its more or less finished.  I used cost effective pavers, which I laid over builder's sand.  The rock is just run of the mill marble chips, but its perfect for matching the houses details and brightening up this shady nook.  I got the bamboo poles at 3 for $2.50 at Walmart, and they add a nice Southeast Asian accent until I can get something more fitting.

 Here's a vignette of neoregelia bromeliads, lady palms, bamboo palm, picabeen palm, and some ratty looking heliconias, which are actually starting to bloom!  The area behind the plants will eventually be filled with more rock.

Radicalis palm and various bromeliads dress up this corner nicely!

This corner has a distinctive Asian feel and will look wonderful at night!

I'll make the entry larger in order to better accommodate my mom's power chair, but for now its at least an acceptable entry to my new Balinese courtyard garden.  Notice how I've used a lantern over a circular paver surrounded by stones and then repeated it in the back.  I'll try to repeat this element at various points along the path to the house to create a unified theme and encourage people to stop and look.  For now all I need to do is clean those dirty old pavers...  at least now you can see where the old, smaller patio was before I enlarged it.  Too small!

Here's a posting that shows what the courtyard looked like before... yuck!
Balinese Garden Part 2